Pride & Prejudice and Oliver Twist: Real/Ideal
Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice
The literary historian who identifies fiction with the novel is greatly embarrassed by the length of time that the world managed to get along without the novel, and until he reaches his great deliverance in Defoe, his perspective is intolerably cramped…. [T]he word novel, which up to about 1900 was still the name of a more or less recognizable form, has since expanded into a catchall term which can be applied to practically any prose book that is not "on" something.The audience for this latest adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice will probably find it with or without reviews, and enjoy it irrespective of its quality. So it feels almost irrelevant to say that it's very good, much better than the trailers led me to expect. The 1940 MGM version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as the mutually antagonizing lovers Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy was based on a stage adaptation; this one was adapted directly from the book by Deborah Moggach and directed by Joe Wright with as much feel for what it means to be a novel as any adaptation of one I can think of.
--Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
In distinguishing the novel from prose romance generally, Northrop Frye wrote that the novel's "chief interest is in human character as it manifests itself in society." The novelist focuses on individual experience, giving herself as much direct access to the characters' thoughts and feelings as suits her purpose. At the same time, however, she sets the individual within concentric and overlapping circles that circumscribe family and household, community and fellow countrymen, co-religionists, members of the same sex, all of which we expect to be described believably. In this way the novelist simultaneously creates subjective and objective worlds that must feel as if they were being recreated from real-life models rather than dreamed up.
The objective world of the novel, i.e., the setting, also functions as a stage for a drama that derives from the defining attributes of the characters. And somehow, paradoxically, if the characters are convincingly, and engagingly, individual enough, all humanity may identify with them. That is, we recognize in the characters' defining attributes aspects of our own personalities and project ourselves into the resulting drama, which may be no more than to point out the kernel of allegory at the core of naturalistic character development. As applied to Austen's novel, you may recognize Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth as Pride and Prejudice personified and still feel that you know, or "are," in whole or in part, either or both of them.
Apart from voice-over, a movie can't replicate novelistic narration, certainly not within a comfortable stretch of theater-sitting time. A movie version of Pride and Prejudice is thus limited to what can be shown or spoken aloud. Fortunately, as the 1940 version shows, Austen's plot is a sturdy romantic comedy that can be staged on sets. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters to marry off, in descending order of age if they're to do it properly. (Marrying the younger girls first might cause comment that would lessen the older girls' chances of marrying at all.) The Bennets do not have any income to settle on the girls, however, and even the house they live in will pass on Mr. Bennet's death to a cousin. Mr. Darcy, a wealthy young man with noble connections who is visiting in the neighborhood, falls for Elizabeth although he sharply feels the inferiority of her social rank. He's both aloof and utterly candid, a combination that means he's not falsely ingratiating, but that also causes him to wound Elizabeth's feelings in the very act of proposing to her. For her part, Elizabeth is likewise drawn to Mr. Darcy but believes a slander against him because his extreme stiffness makes the lies of the attractive blackguard Wickham appear probable. In the final act Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy recover from the missteps caused by the character defects that give the book its title.
Thus, Pride and Prejudice can be cut down for the stage and played for high comedy. Wright, however, grounds Austen's work in the tradition of English naturalism that she inherited from Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Fanny Burney, and developed contemporaneously with Walter Scott. First of all, starting at the wider end of the scale, Wright takes deliberate care with the country-life setting. We see in passing the livestock and poultry on all sides and under foot, as well as the working of the land and the keeping of the house. A constant industry surrounds the central action, which takes place in a living countryside. (You are kept aware as subtly as possible that the plot involves possession of the means of survival.) Wright expands the scope of Austen's observation, and he does it without sacrificing theatrical compression. (This is perhaps the most respectable form of commercial genius in the movies.)
On the more intimate end of the scale, Wright directs his actors to be especially alert to the other characters' signals, and he swiftly cuts to the telling details. Austen's society is extremely formal; language is spoken nearly in code and at times the characters have to decipher what's said to them and manage a response in a short enough time to conceal any immoderate reactions they may be having. Decorum is a constant challenge, and you can see here how it keeps the eyes darting for information and the brain whirring for verbal resources. Wright constantly makes us aware that the characters are reading each other, and framing their replies. The glances, and hand gestures, are as pointed and meaningful and yet as understated as in any movie.
Finally, Wright has developed a cumulative technique to get the big picture and the insets all at once. Best of all are the sequences (such as the opening at the Bennets' home and later at two dances) in which the roaming camera, with seemingly unbounded peripheral vision, gives us an unusually rich sense of simultaneity. For the most part Wright's technique couldn't be called flashy, but it revives senses dulled by years of depressingly unimaginative literary projects. This is a knife-sharpener's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
In 127 minutes Wright gets in as much as he grasps of Austen's specificity and compass, rightly assuming that, of the two, specificity is more essential to a novel. He understands perfectly, for instance, what a problem it is for the oldest Bennet girls, Jane and Elizabeth, that their father is weak-willed, their mother too clumsily obvious in parading them before eligible bachelors, and their younger sisters disastrously silly. In Austen the charge that a girl's family poses an impediment to marrying her is valid, and unanswerable—it isn't Elizabeth's fault, but she can't deny it's a source of chagrin, "hopeless of remedy." It is not only snobbery that would make men with great fortunes hesitate to ally themselves with careless parents like the Bennets. Their sensible oldest daughters seem to have educated themselves, and that leads to problems of its own.
Elizabeth has brains and wit to spare; the problem is that she needs to spare a measure of the wit, and she's too young and inexperienced—and self-willed—to know how much and when. As her friend Charlotte says to her at the first ball, when Elizabeth falls in love her tongue is going to get her in trouble. As we then see, she falls into a trap precisely because she's so damned clever. It is not the case that Elizabeth, lacking proper guidance at home, happens to err in taking Wickham's part against Darcy, but that her overreliance on wit makes her likely to make such a mistake—to judge a man's character by how pleasing his manners are.
Thus, although "prejudice" is Elizabeth's error with respect to the slander against Darcy, it isn't her underlying flaw, which is a superficial habit of mind, a mind that follows her tongue. Elizabeth's mind is so self-governing that she borders on being morally light, a tendency that must be corrected by experience; the lesson is driven home by the near loss of Mr. Darcy's regard once she has come to realize its true worth. (As Elizabeth says to herself in the novel after reading Darcy's letter about Wickham, "I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either [of the men] were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.") At least she's amenable to correction, and the more impressive in that she herself has to apply it in the absence of appropriate parental authority. Elizabeth is her own governess, for better and worse, and then for much better.
To give us so much of Austen's Elizabeth, Wright and Moggach reduce Mr. Darcy to a supporting character. It's less of a loss than the reverse would be; Darcy's side of the allegory—that pride in rank is a flaw—is easier to demonstrate (certainly to modern audiences). Matthew MacFadyen is very good as Darcy, hemmed in without being unattractive, strong and generous entirely within the terms appropriate to his station. In Austen's eyes, a Mr. Darcy provides foundational strength for the whole community. Wright respects this as Austen's vision, but by lessening Mr. Darcy's importance to the movie he also makes the more appetizing choice to modern female moviegoers of building up the heroine. This doesn't eliminate the social views we no longer live by, or would care to. (This is not a work of shallow nostalgia.) And the movie preserves the contradiction right at the heart of the book: as a reward for growing up, the middle-class heroine deserves no less than the man of the greatest consequence and largest income in the book. But that's the full extent of Austen's romantic fantasy, which comes couched entirely in social and psychological naturalism.
The shift of weight almost entirely onto Elizabeth also shifts the movie onto Keira Knightley's slender shoulders. For me, the biggest surprise of all was her performance: she carries the movie with her reed-like uprightness and poise. It's a surprise because she had struck me as downright amateurish in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). But though she's as doe-eyed as Winona Ryder, she has a dramatic intelligence and an astuteness with dialogue that no American actress her age (20) can match. Knightley makes the qualities of Elizabeth's mind visible to the naked eye: her interest in, and amusement at, what's going on around her well up and gather in her luminous face. But there's more than a vivid-minded comeliness here: Elizabeth is as articulate, and nearly as contentious, a heroine as Shakespeare's Beatrice, and Knightley is as well-suited for the role as any actress believably just entering the marriage market. And not only does Knightley have the delivery necessary for the high comedy, she also displays the sense of awe necessary to mime what it means to realize you are not as worthy of the thing you want as you have always assumed.
A few minor objections: in the early scenes Kitty and Lydia are so antically in character I was wishing for a giant flyswatter. Knightley also has a tendency to lift her upper lip and wrinkle her nose in a way that is just too cute. She overcomes this bad habit, whereas Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett seems to have nothing left as an actor but the habit itself. He's not a joke (as he was when "choking back tears" in a BBC interview, in which he compared NBC's editing of Kanye West's comment about President Bush during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon to book-burning in Nazi Germany), but he is unpardonably boring. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine makes that great comic Gorgon steely and flat without making her funny. I had no idea what kind of high drama Dench thought she was reaching for. And Wright goes in for a few "arty" touches that he doesn't have the moviemaking flair for—when, for instance, the other dancers in a ballroom disappear leaving an angry Elizabeth and a bewildered Darcy dancing alone.
More significantly, the movie almost helplessly emphasizes personality over Austen's more encompassing vision of the harmonic utility of the social arrangements she depicts. She's not a snob but she believes that a hierarchical, landed society provides the most, and deepest, contentment for the most people. If a movie doesn't get this out of Austen then it's cruising below the highest attainable altitude. It was this aspect of Emma that walloped me in Ralph Rader's 18th-century novel class at UC Berkeley; after his last lecture I had to run to a phone and tell somebody about it. (My most concerted attempt to live up to Rader's teaching can be found toward the end of my chapter about Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling's spectacularly pleasurable modernization of Emma, in my new book.) I don't think Wright's Pride & Prejudice can widen your opinion of Austen, as Rader's lectures did mine. The worst I can say on this basis, however, is merely that the movie isn't everything it possibly could have been, given its source. All the same, this Pride & Prejudice has an enormously satisfying emotional payoff on the personal level, which is almost beyond hoping for at the movies.
This 31 July 2005 Times Online article includes interesting information about what Wright and Moggach felt they were doing with the movie. Wright, for example, says he was stunned to discover that Austen was "one of the first British realists," and keyed the movie to this "discovery." When I repeated this to Maria DiBattista, my thesis advisor, she looked at me blankly and said, "What other possibility is there?" Wright's self-confessed ignorance of literary history is thus doubly shocking, considering how insightfully he has brought Austen to the screen.
Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist
The novelist deals with personality, with characters wearing their … social masks. He needs the framework of a stable society, and many of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussiness. The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in vacuo idealized by revery, and, however conservative he may be, something nihilistic and untamable is likely to keep breaking out of his pages.In contrast to Wright's Pride & Prejudice, Roman Polanski's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist is an example of attention to naturalistic details where they are least to the point. Polanski approaches the book as if it were a novel and it simply isn't, in any but a superficial sense. The extremes of fiendish darkness and seraphic light, the coincidences and miraculous deliverances, the grotesque humor, the realization that the author has worked out an ingenious demonstration of abstract beliefs, all tell you it's a romance. Readers may be misled by the protest against early 19th-century institutions such as the workhouse in the early portions of the book, and by the graphic depiction of the slumscape once the little hero gets to London. The pitfall of a criminal life was real enough for a poor boy, then as now, but Oliver isn't a naturalistic character, described from the inside out, and capable of further development, as Elizabeth Bennet is, or even as Dickens's own Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop and Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend are. (Dickens transforms both these men from allegorical vices into plausible young heroes in the course of those books.)
--Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
Little Oliver is an allegorical figure, the infant Christian soul, born complete and impervious to degradation, no matter what circumstances it finds itself in. (He's like the kids in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who don't have to be taught that the holiday isn't about presents, they just feel it naturally and emerge from their burgled houses singing.) Oliver can be forced into crime, but he is proof against corruption. When Bill Sikes does force him, Oliver sinks to his knees and cries, "Oh! pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in Heaven, have mercy upon me!"
The anti-Semitism in the depiction of Fagin the Jew, the fence who trains homeless children to pick pockets, makes sense only in this schema. If Oliver is the inherently innocent Christian soul, Fagin is a Jew as that term is meant—by the simultaneous operation of rank prejudice and simple logic—to show that Oliver can withstand the ultimate trial. To triumph in terms that bring out the full nature of this personification, then, Oliver not only has to resist Fagin but forgive him—when Oliver visits Fagin in prison the night before his hanging he begs "the Jew" to kneel and pray with him. Dickens, a survivor of the cracks that unmoneyed children can fall through, was, as an author, a resiliently optimistic Christian. The world could be harsh and even malevolent, but the universe was benign, and good men, i.e., true Christians, absolutely had the power to foil the machinations of evil men. To Dickens, Fagin is not evil because he's Jewish; we read of "venerable men of [Fagin's] own persuasion" who come to pray with him in prison and whom he drives away with curses. That is, Dickens didn't first decide to make Fagin Jewish and then as a necessary consequence make him evil. Dickens makes Fagin Jewish because the corrupter of children must be the opposite of good, which he always casts in Christian terms.
Thus, Oliver is at the center of a melodramatic romance about the perils of existence, conceived not just as a day-to-day struggle but as the grand struggle, for the life of the soul. Oliver is not a likely little boy of his age or condition of any era; Fagin himself notes that Oliver "was not like other boys in the same circumstances." He's the embodiment of Dickens's hope that there is something inborn in humans that enables them to rise above the real social problems he saw around him and that he describes more than realistically, with thunderstruck, nightmarish emphasis. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, the Native Son of the ghettos that African-Americans were penned in, is also an allegorical figure, but since he serves as a warning of the depravity that his condition can lead to, he's a far more plausible figure than Oliver who represents a profession of faith on Dickens's part. Oliver Twist is a devout fantasy that blooms straight from the seedbed of allegory.
Polanski takes a story that is in essence a stark series of tableaux, featuring assorted virtues and vices in silhouette, so to speak, and gives it the naturalistic treatment—my boyfriend pointed out that he'd never noticed horse turds in the street in a period movie before. But that doesn't add nearly as much as Polanski seems to think because he's on auto-pilot with respect to the allegory. For instance, he gives Oliver a working-class accent, which defeats the greater point—Oliver's unlikely perfect speech in the book doesn't just foreshadow the class he properly belongs to but announces his essential worth.
Another problem is that the script (by playwright Ronald Harwood) is an even more slenderized version of the story than in Carol Reed's musical adaptation Oliver! (1968). Cutting back on the characters and subplots at least makes sense if you want to make room for musical numbers. And while the music-hall turns of Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger alter and soften the material (song-belters being friendlier companions than fences and whores and thieves), they also serve the material by bringing out the high artifice and energy in Dickens's style of characterization. Working with a skeletal plot, Polanski doesn't give us an Oliver Twist that is meaningfully truer to Dickens or truer to life, but one that plays like a version of Oliver! with all the songs cut out and nothing put in their place.
Nor does Polanski's naturalism recommend itself on its own terms. At one point Oliver is running from the police (though he's done nothing wrong) and is stopped with a blow to the mouth by a "great lubberly fellow." In the book the fellow touches his hat with a grin, "expecting something for his pains" while in the movie he sticks his hand out level, palm up, to receive a coin. This is just crude, but not in the way Dickens was, i.e., with much sharper irony. Polanski's Oliver Twist seeks to be as naturalistic as an illustration out of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor and fails, but also lacks the stylization to put the allegory over with the theatrical punch Dickens brought to it. In this way Polanski falls far short of David Lean's 1948 version, which catches the book's shadowplay intensities perfectly. And because Lean understands it's not a "difficult" story he manages to get through more of the plot at a faster clip than Polanski, whisking you from one peak to another and another.
Altogether, the book is a bad fit for Polanski. Unlike Oliver, Polanski is a Jew, who as a terrorized child survived the Nazi Holocaust (both his parents were deported to concentration camps where his mother died). Then as a young man and budding artist he survived the Communist domination of his homeland. (Later, already an international celebrity, he survived the butchering of his wife and unborn son in the Manson Family killings in 1969.) Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature, was made in the state-controlled Polish film industry and shows that Polanski knows how to spin a romance, a bleak one. In the movie a handsome young hitchhiker stops the car of a successful journalist and his younger wife by stepping into the middle of the road. The couple is on their way to the marina for a weekend of sailing, and though annoyed with the hitchhiker they invite him to come along. On the boat the older man is the captain, of course, but he also keeps trying to prove, with increasing sadism, that he's more of a man than the hitchhiker, who can't swim. The wife senses something more responsive in the young man but is not free to express a preference. The gamesmanship escalates until the hitchhiker is pitched overboard, but the kid has some tricks of his own it turns out.
Polanski shoots this pessimistic tale in a silvery-velvety black-and-white, and brings to it an unusually knowing attitude, especially since its appeal is essentially adolescent. (The young man remains nameless, a fill-in-the-blank for us to identify with in the games the older man keeps rigging on his own turf.) Knife in the Water suggests that the older generation of morally adaptable survivors provides the only possible role model for a young man, if he plans to function to any degree in that authoritarian society. A young man will either become like his corrupt elders, and presumably get a trophy woman of his own, or drown. The best he can hope for is to beat the tough older men at their own game, but that's still losing. To Polanski, surviving in such a society, in such a world, is not the same as winning, and you get this feeling from his movies even after he left Poland--Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), Death and the Maiden (1994), and The Pianist (2002), for instance.
Despite Dickens's optimism, Polanski isn't any sunshinier filming Oliver Twist, and the maddening thing is not just that we hardly need another movie adaptation of it (it's toward the bottom of Dickens's accomplishments and has been filmed umpteen times), but that there are other Dickens books that haven't been given the major movie treatment that would better suit Polanski's temperament. Barnaby Rudge, for instance, with its startlingly cinematic depiction of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, would have been a far more logical follow-up to The Pianist than Oliver Twist, especially given the anti-Semitism at the heart of the allegory in the latter, which Polanski can't redeem or shoot straight, but merely covers up. And Our Mutual Friend has many darker characters and a more disturbingly uncanny landscape, including a Thames so full of dead bodies it spawns a minor industry of recovering them, a mound of garbage believed to contain a fortune, and a taxidermist's and bone-articulator's shop where a man goes to inquire after his own amputated leg.
Technically, we didn't need another version of Pride and Prejudice, either, but when the makers understand the spirit of the book and its means as well as Joe Wright, Deborah Moggach, and the lead actors do, you may find yourself not only reawakened to the treasurable qualities of Austen's novel but to the appeal of literary adaptations generally. It's axiomatic that the adapters of a book can't do a creditable job if they don't understand what kind of book they're adapting. People equate fiction with the novel and we end up with far more misfires like Polanski's Oliver Twist than works that honor and even extend the author's intentions as Wright's Pride & Prejudice does so admirably.
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.